Screen Time and Being Present

Have you ever considered purchasing a new vehicle and suddenly you see that exact model everywhere you drive? It’s so weird, isn’t it? Lately I have been experiencing this type of phenomenon as it relates to screen time and its effects on personal and professional relationships. Ironically, in every instance of being moved by these powerful messages, publications and statistics, I myself am actively engaged in screen time. It usually happens after watching a video of dogs misbehaving (so funny) when my feeling of amusement is quickly replaced with guilt.

Not only have our smart phones and mobile devices become extensions of our limbs, they have become inanimate objects that we often develop an unhealthy attachment to. If you don’t believe me, try hiding your teenager’s cell phone and make note of their response. You will find that it somewhat resembles the reaction of a baby who can’t find his binky (pacifier) or toddler who lost her favorite Teddy Bear. Truthfully, if I can’t find my phone, I have a similar (but more discreet) lost Teddy Bear reaction. We all know that this type of withdrawal and co-dependence isn’t healthy yet so many of us experience it. After all, what would happen if you missed a few hours of emails, texts, or social media posts? Would the world stop spinning? Well, NO, but it sure feels like it!

The ability to find almost anything with a few clicks (even if we don’t know how to spell it), play a word game with a friend from high school (that was always just a little smarter than you), text a loving sentiment to a family member 2,000 miles away without the use of a single capital letter or punctuation mark (that drives me nuts), post a selfie (once we find the best filter of course) to show our “friends” how much fun we are having, and to run our businesses and respond to our clients 24 hours a day is both a blessing and a curse. Even on airplanes we are able to connect to WiFi (when it works) so we can continue to look at our screens without interruption. Less and less do you hear strangers crammed next to each other for the duration of a flight striking up a conversation or commenting on the selection of stale cookies or overly salted peanuts. As I write, I am halfway through a two-hour flight and am resisting the urge to connect to Delta FlyFi to text my dog walker and find out if everyone did their business (you know you have done it). In the past few years I have noticed a significant decrease in my “in air” production because of this ability to connect or to watch a movie that I never would pay to see in theaters. Again, the irony. . . They just made an announcement. “As we begin our initial descent into Boston, we may hit some rough air and the WiFi will most likely be interrupted.” Suddenly, a subdued combination of aggravation and panic sets in amongst a majority of passengers. What has become of us? Along with our constant need to text, email, snap, tweet, post, swipe and scroll, we have developed a lower tolerance for staying engaged. Our attention spans continue to decrease as do productivity levels (multi-tasking has become a farce as individual “to do’s” are difficult to complete with so much distraction).

But wait. . . I believe there is a larger issue. The previously stated side effects of increased screen time fall in second place to the drastic decline in our ability to connect and interact on personal and professional levels. Gone are the days of eye contact, handshakes, and quality face to face time (not “FaceTime”). Do not misinterpret my meaning as technology (especially involving screen time) has made it possible for many businesses (including mine) to work closely with clients all over the nation and the globe without ever leaving the comfort of home or workplace offices, however, there are times when a video meeting or conference call just doesn’t cut it.

In our personal lives, unless a NO device at dinner rule (at home or when dining out) has been established, meaningful conversations are rare, and heads are tilted down, focused on smart phones while only one hand is used to eat. No elbows on the table and “pardon my reach” when passing the butter are becoming etiquette of the past. I think my point is clear, so I won’t go on a rant about the dangers of texting and driving or the need of so many screen time junkies to selfie their way through every waking moment of the day.

The intent of this article is not to take a high and mighty position on the subject or to claim that I am not also guilty of wasting hours a week watching mindless (yet entertaining) Netflix originals or checking out how many likes (and loves) my last dog post has. My hope in writing is to make you take a closer look at how screen time enhances your life or how it may be diminishing the quality of your relationships. Along with posting (boasting) how proud you are of your son for making high honor roll, take him out to his favorite ice cream place and show him in real life. The next time you attend a concert, put your phone away (after you take a few selfies to make everyone jealous of your primo seats), stop live streaming and “waving” to the people sitting at home following your feed and pay attention to the person or people who want to share in the live experience sitting right next to you. In the grand scheme of things, is anyone going to write on your headstone: “John Smith, devoted husband, father and renowned live streamer?” Think about it.

In the office, the same holds true. Administrators, if one of your team members comes to you with a personal problem that is interfering with work, or maybe even a suggestion on how to improve productivity, look up from your phone or your computer and ignore that last text. Listen intently, analyze the situation and respond to the best of your ability (even if it’s to say “Thank you for coming to me with this. I need to think it over and get back to you”). Doctors, consider the same the next time you are listening to a patient describe a painful condition that has caused them to stop running (something that had been a passion for years). Look up from the tablet or keyboard, make eye contact and give them your undivided attention and compassion before explaining how you can help them get back out there. In any scenario, it doesn’t take long to make, a child, a significant other, a staff member or a patient feel like they are the most important person in the room.

One final thought before I step down from my soap box. Every once in a while, hand write a thank you note for someone who has gone above and beyond or bring in a coffee (just the way they like it from Dunkin’) for a co-worker you know would truly appreciate it. These little gestures don’t cost very much, if anything at all, but make a much larger impact than screen time related “shout outs” ever could. In our electronic world of “friends” and “followers” I believe it is more important than ever to embrace the power of the human connection and to find a sense of worth in the real lives we touch every day. And now you can go back to streaming that video of the little pug with red lipstick all over her face. You’re welcome

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